Mansfield’s influence on the structure of the short story is comparable to that of her more famous contemporary James Joyce on the novel. Crucial to each is a sense that point of view must be controlled from within the character and that the elusiveness of life’s meaning can be captured through an epiphanic moment. Here, mental access has been restricted to Miss Brill, but mere selective omniscience cannot account for the artfulness of the technique. The manipulation of time is important because the story tends toward the exploration of a few moments in a character’s life.
These highly compressed moments, therefore, reveal psychological time instead of clock-time, and they are everywhere marked by Miss Brill’s colloquialisms and features of her private language. Mixed with this language, however, is the narrator’s phraseology (narrated monologue), so that even the most neutral observations are reinforced by a kind of lyric intensity: “And sometimes a tiny staggerer came suddenly rocking into the open from under the trees, stopped, stared, as suddenly sat down ’flop,’ until its small high-stepping mother, like a young hen, rushed scolding to its rescue.” It is this rich mixture of interior monologue, narrated monologue, and narrator summary that enables the reader to perceive the very reality Miss Brill seeks to deny in her fantasies.
Like Joyce, Mansfield rejected an intrusive commentary, allowing the reader to form a reaction to the character in more subtle ways. As Miss Brill reflects on the past, or once, notably, anticipates a future time in the imagined dialogue with her reading companion, she reveals herself and her anxieties most fully. Using Miss Brill’s eyes to look outward on the world of the story enables the narrator to infuse her vision with a stronger vision so that themes of isolation, exile, and aging in a hostile world appear to evolve naturally from the character herself.
In this way, the intermingling of scene, narrator summary (or withdrawal), and the modes of Miss Brill’s mental life work in harmony to preserve the flavor of Miss Brill’s own phraseology and to keep the narrative fabric smooth and seamless. The end result is that Miss Brill’s life tends toward a moment in which she can no longer deny the reality she so greatly fears.
Europe between the Wars In the 1920s, Europe was rebuilding after World War I, the most destructive and deadly war in history. As the economy grew, spurred on by the advances in medicine and technology gained during the war, a newfound era of wealth and cultural growth permeated many Western European countries. France especially, became a haven for expatriate artists and writers from England and the United States drawn to its affordable living conditions. The values of the "Jazz Age" spread to the continent, where the dismantling of strict Victorian protocol resulted in the rise of controversial art like Expressionism and Surrealism and explicit literature from writers like James Joyce.
''Miss Brill" is set during this tumultuous time period, when the sight of an older, single woman wearing an outdated fur stole represented a genteel world forever obliterated by the atrocities of trench warfare, the promise of air travel, and the cynicism generated by the millions of casualties in the war. Like others of her day, Miss Brill is a foreigner living in France, but she is alienated from the thriving community of artists and writers who formed the "moveable feast" in Paris during the 1920s. Instead, Miss Brill has a few students to whom she teaches English, and she reads to an elderly gentleman until he...
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falls asleep. Miss Brill's association with this man further represents her alignment with an era now obsolete. The young couple on the bench are of a younger generation, and their comments reveal the attitude towards which young people now regarded their elders.
Mansfield, whose numerous affairs always marked her as a bit of a free spirit, fit into this new social order quite comfortably. However, by the time she wrote "Miss Brill," she was weak from tuberculosis and exerted the bulk of her energy writing stories and letters. In England, the Bloomsbury writers, a loosely-knit group that included Virginia Woolf and whose main literary goal was to eradicate the old social order of the Victorians, were in frequent correspondence with Mansfield. In "Miss Brill," Mansfield created one of her most famous characterizations—one that illustrates the illusions of the old order and how they are shown to be just that: illusions.
"Miss Brill" presents the interior monologue of a woman on a Sunday trip to the park whose pleasant illusions are shattered when reality infringes on her thoughts.
Setting "Miss Brill" is set in the "Jardins Publiques," the French term for "public garden," or park. Miss Brill, through her name and the indication that she tutors students in English, is revealed to be a non-native of France and, thus, an outsider from the start. These factual references reinforce her emotional isolation, which she attempts to overcome by pretending that she is a cast member in a stage production. The pleasant weather, its crispness perfect for her fur collar, echoes Miss Brill's good mood as she sits in the garden listening to the band and watching the people. When her illusion of understanding with the others in the park is shattered by the comments of the young couple, however, Miss Brill retreats to her "little dark room—her room like a cupboard." This change of setting highlights the main character's abrupt change in mood.
Symbolism The primary symbol in "Miss Brill" is the main character's fur stole. It assumes various lifelike traits, echoing the traits that characterize Miss Brill herself. She has "taken it out of its box that afternoon," just as Miss Brill has left her "room like a cupboard" for a walk in the park. It is given other human qualities: its nose "wasn't at all firm"; and Miss Brill imagines its eyes are asking, "What has been happening to me?"; and when placed back in its box at the end of the story, she thinks she hears it crying. The boy in the park criticizes Miss Brill's appearance, suggesting that she should ''keep her silly old mug at home." Likewise, his girlfriend criticizes the fur, giggling that it looks "exactly like a fried whiting." When Miss Brill takes the fur off at home, she does it "quickly; quickly, without looking," perhaps symbolizing the way she failed to examine her own life or recognize how she appears to others.
Narration "Miss Brill" is told in a third-person, stream-of-consciousness narrative, a common device in Mansfield's works which serves to heighten the story's psychological acuity and perceptive characterization. Though the narrative is third person, the stream-of-consciousness technique allows the reader full access to Miss Brill's thoughts, but nothing more than Miss Brill's thoughts. Thus, the thoughts of others in the story are revealed by dialogue (such as the young couple's), or they are not revealed at all (like the couple seated next to Miss Brill who do not speak). Likewise, the reader is privy to Miss Brill's thoughts about her fur: "Dear little thing! It was nice to feel it again," but is left to intuit much of Miss Brill's character by what she does not realize. The stream-of-consciousness narrative reveals, for example, Miss Brill's perception of the woman wearing an old ermine hat. Miss Brill slightly scorns the woman, calling her hat "shabby" and her hand a "tiny yellowish paw," yet she fails to note that her own appearance is somewhat similar to the woman's. Thus, part of Miss Brill's character is revealed by what her stream-of-consciousness narration fails to address.
1920s: Few professions other than nursing and teaching are deemed socially acceptable for women who must support themselves.
Today: College graduates are as likely to be female as male, and a majority of women are employed in the workforce and in virtually every profession.
1920s: One's social rank can be determined from one's clothing. Gentlemen wear hats, ladies gloves, and fur denotes a position of some social standing. Women, with few exceptions, always wear dresses or skirts.
Today: Social conventions regarding dress are relaxed. Hats and gloves are uncommon in many circles, and pants are a staple of most women's wardrobes. Many believe fur to be a symbol not of status but rather an indication of cruelty and conspicuous consumption.
1920s: Common forms of recreation include reading, going to the theater, and gathering in public places such as parks or pubs. People often dress up to appear in public.
Today: 98 percent of all households in the United States own televisions. Other forms of mass communication, including the telephone, radio, and the personal computers, have infringed on the time spent socializing with others in a public sphere. In suburban areas, the most crowded space is often the shopping mall.
Sources Mansfield, Katherine. The Letters of Katherine Mansfield, edited by J. Middleton Murry. Knopf, 1930.
Further Reading Fullbrook, Kate. Katherine Mansfield. Indiana University Press, 1986. Biography of the writer's life.
Koblet, J. F. Katherine Mansfield: A Study of the Short Fiction. Twayne, 1990. Critical analysis of Mansfield's stories.
Nathan, Rhoda B. Katherine Mansfield. Continuum Publishing Company, 1988. Biography of the writer's life.
Pilditch, Jan. The Critical Response to Katherine Mansfield. Greenwood Press, 1996. Collection of reprinted criticism on Mansfield's works.